Black Feathers by Joseph D’Lacey – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first in a new post-apocalyptic fantasy series from Angry Robot Books.
“Spectacular is the word I’d use to describe the novel. Nothing else can capture the reading experience.” ~The Founding Fields
Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t really my thing, and for a simple reason: it’s just never really interested me all that much. However, reading D’Lacey’s latest has turned around me thinking for a bit. Black Feathers is a novel that is set in two very different times. The first is the post-apocalyptic world where we follow Megan Maurice in fulfilling her destiny as a keeper of knowledge from the lost times.. The second is the pre-apocalyptic world as we see the birth of Gordon Black and through him see how the world, specifically England, falls into anarchy and tyranny (with lots of shades of V for Vendetta mixed in). The approach used by D’Lacey eases the reader into his world, and his narrative, although the novel hits the ground running from the get go.
As with all Angry Robot books I’ve enjoyed since I started reading their publications last year, the stand-out element of D’Lacey’s novel is his characterisation. He has captured the feelings, the attitudes and behaviours of his two protagonists really well and he has given them an almost equal page-time. That is doubly great since neither character feels neglected at the expense of the other.
Whether we see Gordon Black as a young kid, or as a teenager, his character always rings true. When Gordon’s world is irrevocably shattered by the actions of the new British police force, the Ward, that’s when he really comes into his own. His story arc is one where he has to learn to grow up while still young, still inexperienced in how the world functions. It would have been a challenging enough circumstance had the world been as we know it. But it’s not. The old government, the old social mores, the old relationships, they are all gone, and all that remains is the basic family unit, struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile world. Gordon’s oddness, both in terms of his personality and the events surrounding his life, are what drive his story arc. There are lots of hints throughout the novel that he is someone special, someone unique, and that ultimately he is going to leave his mark on the world. What made this aspect of his arc compelling was that D’Lacey teases out all this information, often providing snapshots of Gordon’s life through his diary entries. It all added immensely to the dark fantasy atmosphere he was creating from the get go, and contributed to a wonderful reading experience.
With Megan, it was like reading a low fantasy novel with young adult characters, very much like the early parts of Peter V. Brett’s The Painted Man, a novel I’ve recently read and which bears similarities to D’Lacey’s own novel. Megan’s arc is all about hidden mysteries and discovering a lost past, which fits the tone of the novel rather well, and complements Gordon’s own arc. The two stories are parallels of each other and it’s fun to see how the two intertwine and come to a conclusion later on, right towards the end. The magic in this section of the novel is very low-key and subtle, almost innate and elemental in nature, which made for a nice change of pace from the magical realism aspect of Gordon’s own story arc. The dichotomy between the two serves to enhance and enrich both stories, further adding to the immersive experience of the novel.
Of course, the two stories are also connected by the Crowman, a distant and mysterious individual about whom people are conflicted: is he good or is he bad? Is he a saviour or is he Satan himself? Throughout the book, D’Lacey toys with these conflicting questions and rather than laying it on thick, he plays up the mystery of the character. It was a little frustrating at first since I wanted to know everything about him, but by the end, I liked the approach used by D’Lacey. The Crowman is the connecting horror element for both Gordon and Megan’s arcs, and whenever he gets involved in a scene, the tension really ramps up. The horror aspect of the character comes into its own in the sense that there is never any certainty about what he is, who he is, or what he wants. I really enjoyed that he was made out to be a possible lurking menace in the human psyche, someone who could perhaps be classified as Lawful Evil in a way!
The pacing of the book is a bit rickety in the beginning and when the switch to Gordon’s diary entries happens, but overall I’m quite satisfied with how the book progressed. There is a good sense of balance in the pacing, which is certainly not an easy thing to do given the split narratives and settings.
In addition to the characterisation, it’s in the world-building where the novel shines brightest. D’Lacey takes a very mythological approach to his world. Gordon’s time-frame is of a contemporary England in the post-2000 AD era, whereas Megan’s is set several decades after that. The former is referred to as the Black Dawn, the time of Mankind’s fall, and the latter is called the Bright Day, the time of Mankind’s slow rise and its rediscovery of its past. The Crowman and the whole mythology behind him, like whether he is God or Satan or the Anti-Christ or whatever else people choose to call him, is a central element of the world-building. This is combined with the belief that Mankind’s meteoric rise up the food chain and the species is at a point where it cannot sustain itself off the Earth, and so it is doomed, because the Earth now wants its due. In essence, the Earth wants some time-out, and if the result of this is that civilisation must fall, then so be it. D’Lacey weaves an entire folklore-style narrative around these beliefs and events, and he does it with what I can only call an experienced hand, since I was completely pulled in by his writing.
So yes, I took a chance at reading this book and I’m glad that the experienced worked out well for me. The novel, while touching on all the different things that I’ve mentioned already, is also a coming of age story. And it’s presented as something that is timeless, lending to it a very magical quality that you’d typically find in a fairy tale. Black Feathers is very long-form in comparison of course, but D’Lacey doesn’t let that stop him.
If I have any negative comments on the book, it would be that I would have loved to see more of The Ward, and Gordon’s parents. They all had some great potential to add to the narrative, and given how little we see of them (relatively speaking), I think it took away a bit from the experience. And other than a bit of a pacing issue about a third of the way in, this novel is easily one of my best reads of the month. The Black Dawn series promises to be quite an adventure and I look forward to the sequel, which I hope will be released by the end of the year!